Most drug-related fatalities happen accidentally; however, significant numbers of people turn to intentional overdose as a form of suicide.
Today, Americans live in a world filled with prescription medications and illicit and illegal drugs. Unfortunately, millions of people misuse these substances at least occasionally. Just as sadly, a significant number of people die from a drug overdose every year. In recent years, the numbers of drug overdoses have taken a sharp upward turn.
In the minds of many people, illicit drugs and medications fall into two completely separate categories. However, on a chemical level, there is sometimes a significant degree of overlap. The classic example is the opioid family, which includes both powerful street drugs (e.g., heroin and illegally manufactured fentanyl) and powerful medications (e.g., hydrocodone, oxycodone and legally manufactured fentanyl).
Inside the human body, all these drugs act in the same general manner and have a similar mental and physical impact. Just as importantly, abuse of both legal and illegal opioids comes with substantial risks such as addiction and exposure to potentially fatal overdoses.
When compiling figures, public health officials often ignore the distinction between illegal substances and legal substances. Instead, they focus on the societal and personal consequences of drug abuse and addiction, regardless of legal status. For this reason, the term “drugs” can include both street drugs and medications produced in a controlled, legitimate environment.
In the U.S., the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bear responsibility for recording and reporting the number of Americans who die from drug use. However, the CDC does not record every single drug-related fatality. Instead, their researchers focus on the substances that produce the most deaths from year to year.
The CDC reported that in 2016, 64,070 Americans died from some form of drug overdose.[i] Most drug-related fatalities happen accidentally; however, significant numbers of people turn to intentional overdose as a form of suicide. The CDC focuses only on accidental and purposeful overdoses, not the contributing role that drug use may play in long-term health problems.
This means that no one has a comprehensive picture of how many people die from drug-related causes annually. However, the available research data does provide a good overview of the most common sources of drug fatalities.
Nearly one-third (20,145) of all drug overdoses in 2016 were attributable to the use of a single group of substances called synthetic opioids. This group includes fentanyl, as well as several other drugs based on the same chemical structure as fentanyl. All members of the synthetic opioid family exceed the potency of heroin, often by a staggering amount. Fentanyl is more widely available and widely abused than other synthetic opioids.
Heroin overdoses accounted for 15,446 deaths in 2016. A somewhat smaller number of people (14,427) died after overdosing on some other form of opioid besides the medication methadone (this category includes most opioid medications.) There were 3,314 methadone overdoses in 2016. In addition, 10,619 people died after consuming cocaine, while 7,663 people died after consuming methamphetamine or another non-cocaine stimulant like MDMA (Molly, Ecstasy).
The CDC also provides information on the number of deaths in 2015 related to the consumption of a group of prescription substances called benzodiazepines. This group includes widely prescribed tranquilizing medications such as diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan) and chlordiazepoxide (Librium).[ii] In 2015, roughly 9,000 people overdosed on some form of benzodiazepine. The CDC hasn’t released 2016 figures on fatalities caused by the use of these medications.
Careful readers will note a clear discrepancy in the CDC’s statistics. Even excluding the number of people who died from benzodiazepine use in 2016, the death toll for that year clearly exceeds 64,070 when counted substance by substance. This fact is explained by the use of multiple substances in some people who experience fatal overdoses. The CDC categorizes the causes of death separately, even if two or more causes affect the same person. This means that the raw count of fatalities per substance is greater than the total number of actual deaths.
In 1999, CDC figures show that well under 20,000 Americans died of drug overdoses. Those numbers have risen steadily in almost every subsequent year. However, the death rate really began to skyrocket in 2015. Between the end of 2015 and the end of 2016, the number of annual fatalities rose by more than 10,000.
Public health researchers mostly attribute this rise in deadly outcomes to the increased availability and use of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. For several reasons, use of these powerful substances comes with a greater overdose risk than even heroin, a drug well-known for its potential to produce fatal consequences.
Nationwide figures consistently show that large numbers of people affected by serious substance use problems never enter treatment or receive any kind of structured help. At Transformations Treatment Center, we offer effective treatment options for people affected by drug or alcohol substance use disorders. Call today and let us match you with an addiction treatment program suitable for your particular needs.